Tuesday, February 19, 2019

From facts and fragments and anecdotes, I make up a story

The high temperature for Denver on Feb. 18, 1950, was 53 degrees. The low was 22. That's according to the Farmers' Almanac online weather search app.

Anyone familiar with High Plains weather patterns would see nothing unusual in this. Yes, 53 seems pretty warm for mid-February. But not unusual. On Valentine's Day 2019 in Cheyenne, located 100 miles north of Denver along the Front Range, I wore a T-shirt outside as I took out the trash. Sunny, warm, no wind, 55 degrees. During these mid-winter thaws, temps in the 50s can seem like 70s. You can feel spring in the air, even though spring is a long way off and sometimes delivers worse weather than January or February.

Today's temp in Denver will barely break 20. We expect 15 in Cheyenne. Yesterday I forgot my gloves on a trip to the grocery store. Wind chill was so bad that my hands didn't defrost until I grabbed a fresh-baked loaf of Italian bread and held it close. I must have looked odd. An old guy, bundled for winter, leaning against his shopping cart, hugging a loaf of bread, sighing softly.

On this day 69 years ago, my parents were married in Denver. The photos from that day were shot inside, although the photog could have herded everyone out into the sunshine. My parents are young but not that young. Dad had spent his late-teens and early-20s engaged in World War II. He then went to college on the G.I. Bill. He was 26. My mom was 23, a nursing school graduate and a working nurse. The couple looks happy in their photos. Members of the wedding party, brothers and sisters, spouses and friends, smile at the camera. They all have been through a lot, Great Depression and global war, and look ready to take on the world.

It wasn't easy. It never is. All of the people in the photos are gone now. We are left with their frozen images. And memories. I was born exactly ten months later in Denver's Mercy Hospital. Although family stories say I was born in a snowstorm, that's not what's in the Farmers' Almanac. It was clear and sunny. The high temp was 51 and the low 27. A day much like my parents' wedding day. Mom said she was cleaning the oven when she went into labor. She was trying to take her mind off of the waiting. I like the story but have no way to check it out, as happens with many family stories. Time moves on, memory atrophies, and what we think we know is not accurate at all.

We have stories. The stories sustain us. That's what I'm discovering as I research a novel set 100 years ago in Denver. We know some facts. Denver existed. We have maps and census stats. Hundreds migrated to the Mile High City from other places. Four of them were destined to become my grandparents. They didn't know each other at the time but fate threw them together. They married and I can't tell you what the weather was like on those days because I don't know their anniversaries. With a bit of research, I could find out. But that's not the important thing to me. I've always wanted to know why they came to Denver. I know a few things about their trajectories from elsewhere to here. Grandpa Shay, a cavalry officer in World War I, sought medical help for his lungs at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. There, he met Florence Green, an army nurse from Baltimore. They fell in love, were married, and  produced my father in 1923. They are buried together at Fort Logan National Cemetery in southeast Denver. Surgeons removed one of my Grandpa Hett's diseased lungs and told him to get out of Chicago or the winters would kill him. He jumped on a train to the Rockies. Agnes McDermott took a road trip with her sister and gal pals to Colorado in the summer of 1919. She and her sis liked it so much, they returned to southern Ohio, packed up and moved to Denver. My Mom was their second child.

That's how I got to Denver in 1950.

Time plays a trick on us. When we are young, our relatives tell us stories but we are so self-absorbed that we don't listen. Later, when we can appreciate the stories, the tellers are gone. We know only fragments, anecdotes, stories. The rest, we leave to research and DNA tests. The stories are important because, even if they aren't quite true, they can tell us about people's hopes and dreams and sorrows. We may listen more than we think we do. We may absorb the hopes and dreams and sorrows of those people important to us. I like the idea of genetic memory, that the traumas of our ancestors can be passed along via our genes. This is scary if there is a genocide or war or abuse in your family tree. It also may tell us something about why we get beat down by depression or rejection.

Fiction writers have advantages unknown to genealogy buffs. We respect things that can be proved. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on such a date. The U.S. landed on the moon on such a date and such a location (f*** you, conspiracy junkies). But everything else is subject to interpretation. We make things up. We try to get our hard facts right so you believe the fiction. It's not so easy to compose fiction when you base your story on real people. You have to go off-script. Readers often ask, "Is that a true story?" People, even creative people, crave a lived experience. We also like fairy tales. We like to get the bejesus scared out of us by an evil clown that lives in the sewer. By dragons and orcs. By serial killers who enjoy their liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Today is a good day to remind myself that I was produced by people whose life stories are incomplete and will remain a mystery. I know a few fragments. From those, I can build a bigger story that can eventually be called a novel.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

During a bad weekend for equality, I ponder the Catholic Church's social justice traditions

By now, everyone has viewed the video of the Catholic school boys mocking tribal elder Nathan Phillips on the National Mall.

To review, students from the all-boys Covington (Ky.) Catholic High  School are shown mocking Phillips as he beats the drum and chants the American Indian Movement song. Phillips is a member of the Omaha tribe, a Vietnam veteran, and one of the organizers of the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests of 2017. Videos show white school boys wearing MAGA hats. They also chant Trumpisms such as "build the wall." Obnoxious brats, sons of privilege. One wonders where their clueless hatred came from. One need look no further than our clueless hate-filled president, who mocks Native Americans with terms such as "Pocahontas" and references to the Wounded Knee massacre. They heard these things on talk radio or watched them on Fox News. Maybe they heard mockery of ethnic minorities around their house, from parents who shouted similar things at Trump rallies. Some teachers may be to blame, not so much for spouting racism but by failing to nip it in the bud. Certainly social media spreads the hate, although to blame the Internet for these boys' behavior is too convenient. It takes them -- and the rest of us -- off the hook. That's part of the problem.

Some Facebook commenters have urged the school to expel these students. Too easy. This is a teaching moment. Boot the kids from school and they will head off to the local suburban public school where they will remain smug in their ignorance. The Catholic Church has many teaching tools at its disposal. The New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is a good place to start. WWJD when confronted with a situation where empathy and understanding were called for? Phillips said in an interview that he was trying to insert himself into a brawl. He then tried to escape the melee but the smug-faced teen in the MAGA hat stood in his way. Here was a test to show what true Christianity looks like. Big fail, boys from Covington Catholic High.

The MAGA crowd loves to poke fun of "social justice warriors." Some of us, me included, proudly claim the term. Where did I learn the precepts of social justice? First, at home, then through the Catholic Church during mass and at Father Lopez Catholic High School. The nuns and priests and lay people taught us well. It's fashionable to criticize the church for its many transgressions throughout its 2,000 years. In recent history, we have the scandal of priest sexual abuse. Over he years, Catholic orphanages turned "unwed" mothers into pariahs and treated their young charges like cattle. The church loved its crusades and its bloody Inquisition. Spain and Portugal sent its men to the New World to convert the heathen and kill any who resisted. Nathan Phillips may be a product of one of many Catholic boarding schools, where youngsters were ripped away from their families and bullied into becoming good Catholics. The Catholic Church was a major player in the horror show of history.

It also offers me solace. Not lately, as I quit going to church. I used to find peace in the ritual of the mass. In adulthood, when sinking in the swamp pf depression, I found as much relief in prayer as I did from therapy and meds. I still pray. The main thing that turned me away from the church is what I sometimes refer to as its deal with the devil. The devil is represented by the evangelicals and their handmaidens, the Republican Party. The church decided decades ago that the war against abortion was more important than the spiritual health of its millions of members in the U.S. They allied themselves with the fundamentalists to impose a litmus test on its members. There are only a few questions on the test, I guess you can call it a quiz if you want. You are in the in-crowd if you oppose abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, women in leadership roles (including priests), and LGBT rights. This makes you a fellow traveler with the Evangelical Right Wing, a group whose roots are in anti-Catholic bigotry. Of course, Catholics did their own Protestant-bashing. When I was a kid, I was told it was a sin to go to a Protestant church service. I've sinned repeatedly in my adulthood.

So I'm a Cultural Catholic. My roots are in Catholicism but my present is not. I can't ignore memory. My final thoughts may be of a snippet of Latin from the old mass. My Irish grandfather and his rosary beads. Sister Norbert winding up to whack one of us misbehaving boys. Thankfully, I won't be thinking of how I hated Native Americans, Hispanic immigrants, Jews, Liberals, Obama, the transgender kid who just wants to use the bathroom, and all those other people who might look or think differently from me. I won't make others feel small so I can look big. That's a blessing right there.

LATER: Just returned from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Tie Banquet at the Red Lion Inn. Full house. Sat at the Laramie County Democrats' table with Chris and Dem friends. Saw so many people I've met over the years, people I've met through the NAACP, Juneteenth and the arts. All of us were celebrating Dr. King. Guest Speaker was Dr. Olenda E. Johnson, Ph.D., a Cheyenne native who was the first African-American full professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Uplifting speech from an uplifting person. She talked about the late Wyoming State Senator Liz Byrd of Cheyenne who brought up the King holiday in the legislature nine times before it was finally adopted by that body's white majority. Talk about persistence and dedication. Now I'm home and realizing how wonderful it is to get out to meet people who make a difference day by day by day. Another blessing...

Friday, January 04, 2019

What it was like to be in England "The Summer Before the War"

The war was World War I or The Great War, as it was known before there was a second installment to worldwide slaughter. In the village of Rye in Sussex in England, the Edwardian Era was in full bloom. Men were men, women were women, and sheep grazed peacefully in verdant pastures. A young Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lands in the village. She still mourns the death of her father, a semi-famous poet. In Rye, she confronts the sexism of the time with great aplomb which caught this reader's attention right away. Her story is woven into those of Agatha Kent, a spunky middle-aged matron who lobbied to bring Beatrice to the local school. She also shelters her two nephews, Daniel, a foppish budding poet and Hugh, a medical student. The scene is set for this comedy of manners which eventually runs headlong into The Guns of August.

"The Summer Before the War" is Helen Simonson's second book and her first historical novel. She's done her homework, as far as I can tell. I am researching the same era in the U.S. for my novel "Zeppelins Over Denver," although a more accurate title might be "The Summer after the War." Only five years separate 1914 from 1919, but those years changed forever the very different worlds of Rye and Denver. The scope of those changes in Rye were perhaps more remarkable, given that the place had hundreds of years of history with pubs in buildings built in the 15th century. The settlement and later the city of Denver was but 60 years old in 1919, Colorado just 42 years into statehood and still possessed many of the traits of the frontier. Native Americans lived there for centuries but they were expendable during The Great Western Expansion, especially when gold was discovered in Cherry Creek. And we all remember the Sand Creek Massacre.

What happens when you deposit a crop of restless people into a restless place going through its own historic changes? A novel, I hope, a good one and publishable. Some 20 million people died in World War I and millions more in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. More than a million U.S. soldiers went overseas and many returned changed in body and in mind. Nurses, too, women who had only imagined a quiet married life found themselves in bloody field hospitals while German shells exploded around them. Wars tumult sent many of them on the move to new places. Women would get the vote in 1920 and Prohibition began (Colorado got an early start in 1916). Racial strife spawned the "Red Summer" of 1919, when race riots flared in U.S. cities as black soldiers returning from war said they weren't going to take this shit any more. Working men went out on strike and were beat up and killed for their efforts. The Communists had turned Russia red. That "subversive" influence was felt in the U.S., and helped spawn the investigative unit that would eventually become J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. People traveled in automobiles and airplanes, even zeppelins. Jazz was the new sound and the Charleston the wild new dance.

What a time. I share Simonson's passion for the era. It involves digging into archives and digital records available through Google. War videos can be viewed on YouTube, and you can also listen to some great tunes such as "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" and "How You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm after They've seen Paree." The audio is tinny and scratchy which only adds to my listening pleasure. As I conducted research, it occurred to me that this entire generation is gone. A baby born in 1900, such as my Irish grandfather, would turn 119 this year. If you were born when the war ended, you would turn 101. There are some centenarians out there, but they are rare. Their collective memories lie within us, their descendants, and in the records they left behind. Their stories live on. However, it is through fiction that they really come to life.

Thus it is with Simonson's novel. Her leisurely writing style is reminiscent of the writers of the era, some of whom lived and worked in Sussex, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But a formal tone and leisurely pace does not a boring book make. Simsonson''s characterizations are sharp and her conflicts very real. Humor, too, a real penchant for satire with writers as her favorite target. She has a lively time portraying the Henry James-like Tillingham, the poet Daniel who, a few decades on, would be wearing a black beret and mumbling his poems in a smoky coffee house, and Beatrice's almost-but-not-quite-famous father.

SPOILER ALERT! The townspeople rise to the occasion when was breaks out. They welcome refugees from Belgium. However, when one of the young women, Celeste, turns up pregnant and its discovered she was raped by German soldiers, angry residents lobby to turn her out. When her father arranges for Celeste to go to a convent, Daniel, the foppish poet, agrees to marry her. While Simonson sets her book in a bucolic setting in the midst of a beautiful summer and fall, she doesn't want us to forget that humans are fallible, even horrid, creatures..

"The Summer Before the War" is published by Random House. The trade paperback sells for $17. Listen to the 2016 Diane Rehm NPR interview with Simonson at https://dianerehm.org/shows/2016-03-22/helen-simonson-the-summer-before-the-war

Friday, December 14, 2018

Part XIV: The Way Mike Worked -- How the Contract with America bit the NEA on the ass

The story resumes...

It's been a few weeks, but today I get back to my series "The Way Mike Worked," based on the Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit "The Way We Worked," featured in the Cheyenne library this fall. I've been busy with my novel and some free-lance writing assignments. These later chapters of my saga also take some research, as they deal with my time as an arts bureaucrat at the Wyoming Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. I lived the first four decades of my life clueless about the world of arts administration. For the ensuing 27 years, I lived and worked in that world. I'm still active as a volunteer. My hope is that we all will get a chance to promote the arts in our communities. Taking an active role in creativity may save us all. It may not, but we will have a much better time along the way.

On that day in D.C., I witnessed history.

On Tuesday, September 27, 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich assembled 300 Republican candidates for a photo op in front of the U.S. Capitol. The occasion was the signing of the Contract with America, a document designed by Newt that featured 10 bills that Republicans hoped to pass once the 1994 Mid-term Red Wave led to a Republican majority.

I was just starting my second year in D.C. and still a new hand at inside-the-beltway politics. Did I have a gut feeling that Gingrich's contract would change my life? Not really. Curiosity moved me. That, and a request from my National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) boss that it would be good to keep an eye on Gingrich and his pals as we closed in on the November mid-term election.

That day, I skipped my usual Metro Station stop that led to a two-block walk to NEA offices in the Old Post Office, now a Trump Hotel. I rode all the way to Union Station to take in the event. Republicans had been promoting the gathering for weeks and I was curious. I also had a feeling that it would affect my stint at the NEA. Newt had waged war on Democratic Party policies since his election to Congress in 1979. He had been active in the culture wars, a vanguard in the Religious Right's fight against the NEA, NEH, sacrilegious art, naked art, hip-hop -- any creative strain within 1990s America that threatened The Word in the Bible and U.S. supremacy in the secular world. Not exactly the opening salvo in the struggle but one that would steer politics right into the Trump era.

In late September, D.C.'s oppressive summer bubble of heat and humidity was just beginning to release its grip. But that day at the Capitol, a Republican fever dream was being born in Newt's image.

On this day, Newt launched a war against Democratic Party policies. Total war, akin to Sherman's March through Georgia, which Newt wrote about in one of his novels that I never read. A continuation of Nixon's Southern Strategy, which convinced Southern whites that Republicans were on God's side and Democrats had forged an evil alliance with ethnic minorities, feminists, gays, and college-educated pacifists. It wasn't just that Dem policies were misguided and needed correcting. It was that the Dems were the enemy and needed to be crushed. It was like a Newt Gingrich alternative history. Except it was real and, like the Civil War, had lasting consequences.

Newt wasn't content with writing alternative histories. He actually wanted to make history. Whatever the subject, Newt wrote a book. He's written 18 non-fiction titles. He's authored or co-authored at least a dozen fiction titles. You have to hand it to him. Hatching an idea, writing, revising, finishing, publishing and promoting -- the writer's life is not for the meek. Newt had a platform, still does if you look at the plethora of new titles. It is clear he had a vision and he could write. This one-two punch proved dangerous for the liberal agenda. It was a gift to conservatives waging the culture wars.

As Newt bragged at that 1994 event:“Today, on these steps, we offer this contract as a first step towards renewing American civilization."

What did you do in the culture wars, daddy?

I am a veteran of the culture wars. I don't have any medals and I don't brag about my service. I'm a survivor, which is something to be proud of. For 25 years, I worked to nurture the arts on the local, state, regional and national level. It was fun and heart-breaking. I'm here to tell the story.

What, exactly, are the culture wars? The most significant battle on the national front was waged over explicit photographs of nude gay men and a photo of a crucifix soaked (allegedly) in a container filled with an artist's urine. The NEA helped fund a grant that funded the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibit at DC.'s Corcoran Gallery. The crucifix art, "Piss Christ", won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art "Awards for Artists," also funded by the NEA. Hysterical press coverage followed and evangelical yokels such as Sen. Jesse Helms and  Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell stirred up their followers with tales of blasphemy and obscenity and misuse of taxpayer dollars because, as you know, the national arts budget is so bloated that it puts the defense budget to shame.  

Pause for laughter.

Meanwhile, the NEA found itself in the middle of a lawsuit when it yanked fellowships of four artists for their ostensibly offensive art. All of these offending artists were linked with Satan and all of the Coastal Elites. Pres. Clinton, an evangelical from Arkansas raised by a single mother, was somehow one of those elites. The Republicans aimed to sabotage every one of his programs. This wasn't the first time a combative Congress took on the opposition's sitting president. But it led to all the battles yet to come. 

When confronted with an African-American Democrat as president (a guy who made good the hard way), Republican leaders vowed that none of his programs would become the law of the land. What they failed to obliterate then, they now put in the ruinous hands of the current benighted resident of the Oval Office. The battle will now be joined by the new Democratic majority in the House. Let's hope that the Democrats' tendency for appeasement has been replaced by a need to kick ass and take names. There are some encouraging signs, such as Rep. Pelosi taking Trump to the woodshed this week over the government shutdown.

Let's get back to Newt. His goal was to destroy the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Museum and Library Services Office (MLS), all part of the same funding bill. That was not as easy as it sounded. Newt, in fact, ran into what other conservatives have discovered over the years, that Republicans support the arts and many have children who are schooled in the arts and grow up to become artists, arts consumers, even arts patrons. They have museums and performing arts centers named after them. They weren't so sure that depriving their city's symphony/art museum/ballet of tax dollars was the proper thing to do. They appealed to their moderate Republican Congresspeople (there were moderate Republicans back then) to teach the Democrats a lesson but don't go overboard for goodness sake.

Newt was faced with a problem. How to satisfy the newly-elected rural-state rabble-rousers and their urban and suburban counterparts who had all of the money. Cuts came, as did compromises. The Right liked the fact that the 1996 federal budget cut funding for the arts almost in half and eliminated troublesome fellowships in visual and performing arts. Newt could declare victory and his colleagues could brag about their success out in the hinterlands. And get re-elected in '96.

It led to my early departure from the NEA and a return to my job in Wyoming. It also had other results that were less well-known. The survival of the literary fellowships. That's a story in itself and worth another post. But first, I have to go back 20-some years and do some research. I like research, although sometimes its tentacles grab me and won't let go..

Next chapter: Newt Gingrich, the writer's friend?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Part XIII: The Way Mike Worked -- On the road to D.C.

My eight-year-old son Kevin and I were on our third day of cross-country travel from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Washington, D.C.

I had promised Kevin three things to coax him into traveling with me in the U-Haul. No. 1, each night on the road we would stay at a motel with a pool. No. 2, we would eat every meal at McDonald's. No. 3, we would take his dog, Precious, with us.

He asked if he could drive but I said no, even though I could have used some relief behind the wheel. But I did stick to the other three promises and on this, the third day, I had a bad case of heartburn to match my driver fatigue.

We were passing through the sliver of West Virginia between Ohio and Pennsylvania when I spied a rest area and stopped. It was Labor Day weekend and one of the service clubs staffed a coffee stop. I hit the restrooms and then the coffee stand staffed by a pair of middle-aged guys. As he poured my coffee, one of the guys asked where I was headed.

"Washington, D.C.," I said. "I start a job there Monday."

He nodded, handed me the Styrofoam cup. The coffee was as hot as the afternoon. "You aren't one of those Clinton fellas, are you?"

"Afraid so." I smiled. They didn't. I heard the Deliverance banjo playing in the background. I thanked them for the coffee and retreated to look for my son. Clinton fella? I guess that I was, although far down on the list, way below the political appointees and the thousands of full-time D.C. bureaucrats and the hangers-on that accompany any new administration.  The National Endowment for the Arts was borrowing me from the State of Wyoming because, as a writer from a flyover state such as West Virginia, my higher-ups thought that I would lend a new perspective to the work of the government arts agency. I had signed up for two years with a possible two-year extension. I was part of a pool of Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) employees that made their way to D.C. every couple years. There was a surge now as V.P. Al Gore was tasked with trimming the federal work force.

Kevin and I spent one more night on the road. We could have made it to Rockville, Md., by nightfall but our new house wasn't available until the next day.  The motel had a nice pool and we could see the golden arches from our room. This Clinton fella was pretty tired and tomorrow was moving-in day. Chris and our infant daughter Annie were flying in from Denver in the afternoon. Soon we would all be together in a new house in a new town. Chris was going to stay home with Annie while Kevin went to the third grade. We would try to survive on one mid-level bureaucrat's salary in one of the most expensive suburbs on the East Coast. North Bethesda -- that's what city leaders wanted to rename our section of Rockville. The new name would probably bring higher rents and higher prices all-around. Bragging rights, too, I guess.

But that was all ahead of us in this new adventure.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Part XII: The Way Mike Worked -- Welcome to Wyoming

INTRO: "The Way We Worked" exhibit wrapped up its stint at the Laramie County Public Library on Nov. 16. This Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibit features interactive displays on various aspects of working in the U.S. Technology plays a major role, as you might guess. Assembly lines, automated farm equipment, telephone switchboards, manual typewriters, and the dawn of the computer age. The exhibit has moved on to other libraries. But while it was here, it prompted me to look closely at my own work history. My final batch of posts have to do with my life as an arts administrator. It's a specialty I knew nothing about until I tried out several other career paths. I was clueless when I started in 1991 and, by the time I retired in 2016, I had a few clues. I feel it's my civic responsibility to share them with you, no matter how many words it takes. 

My first year as literature program manager at the Wyoming Arts Council got off to a rocky start.

But it might not have started at all.

I was so tentative with State of Wyoming application that I filled it out by hand instead of typing it. I don't know what I was thinking. Or if I was thinking. I almost had an advanced degree, which I thought would be a plus. But my only experience in arts administration was as a reluctant volunteer in my university's Fine Arts Series. My only grant request thus far, for the Colorado State University English Department's Visiting Writers Series, was turned down by Fort Fund, Fort Collins' local arts agency, despite my eloquent presentation to the grants committee. I was 0-1 in the grants department.

On the plus side, I was a published writer and well acquainted with the literary world after three years in an M.F.A. program. I did some research and discovered that there actually was an arts administration degree track at a number of universities. What did this kind of person do? A lot, as it turns out. Grants, yes, but a list of other things. Outreach to non-profits, budgeting, arts promotion and marketing, diplomacy with hard-headed politicians, schmoozing with rich patrons.

That last one did not figure in my research. But it's a real thing, as I found out over the years. I am a liberal but a pragmatic one. Many rich people are Republicans. That doesn't make them bad, despite the tenor of today's politics. Many of these rich Republicans have an abiding interest in one or more arts forms, usually those that involve large buildings for symphonies, opera, and the visual arts. Most do not fund avant-garde or political arts projects as that can lead to trouble when some rabble-rousing artist makes art that enrages community leaders. The free spirit in me loves the free spirit in others. As a bureaucrat, charged with spending taxpayer money responsibly, well, you can see the conflict. More on this topic later.

My background in the arts was limited. I didn't attend a live symphony performance until well into adulthood. I was in my 40s before I first attended an opera. None of my K-12 schools had arts education beyond basic drawing and making some simple pottery that could be a bowl or an ashtray, the perfect all-around Christmas gift for Marlboro-puffing parents. None of my family members were artists. They tended to be accountants or nurses or insurance sellers. They would have seen an arts career as impractical. "That's nice as a hobby but how are you going to make a living?"

Good question.

I digress. I was applying to be an arts administrator in Wyoming. To my surprise, I landed an in-person interview. I drove up to Cheyenne. The staff interviewed me. They were trying to decide if I was someone they could work with. As I had already discovered in the corporate and academic worlds, it was important to be collegial in a small department where people often worked together.

One WAC staffer asked me what made me want to live in Cheyenne. I answered that I didn't want to live in Cheyenne -- I wanted to work at the Arts Council. It seemed like a perfectly logical answer. I didn't know anything about Cheyenne except that it was the capital city and sponsored a big ten-day rodeo every summer. When we moved to Cheyenne, people seemed dismayed that we had moved from Fort Collins, which was a weekend destination for adults and their teen children. Elders went to shop at Sam's Club and the city's mega-mall, eat dinner at one of the cool restaurants. Young adults went to party. And this was before legal pot!

I got the job. I was hired by director Joy Thompson who, by the end of the year, was on her way elsewhere. My first assignment was to drive to the Sundance Institute in Utah to meet with literary types from the region to plan a collaborative literary initiative. Joy told me they needed someone from Wyoming and I was it. So I teamed up with Robert Sheldon of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) and we drove across Wyoming to Redford's place. A great intro to my colleagues in other states. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Program Director Joe D. Bellamy was there. I met reps from literary organizations like the Aspen Writers Conference and a sampling of writers, including Terry Tempest Williams and Ron Carlson.

I absorbed it all, spoke little. Hiked the mountain and pondered my future. I entered the cliche of "steep learning curve" but was prepared for the challenge. When I went to the office the next week, I was charged with coordinating the initiative for Wyoming. I also was tasked with researching, writing, and editing the WAC's 25th anniversary annual report. A tall order, because I knew nothing about the arts in Wyoming. As the WAC's first full-time staffer for literature I had much to do. I had to show that the investment was worth it.

That introductory year is now a blur. One thing stands out. When the 1992 legislature convened, I began to discover the precariousness of my position. Republican leadership declared war on Democratic Governor Mike Sullivan when he vetoed their latest redistricting plan because it was a clear-cut example of gerrymandering. They retaliated by zeroing out the budgets of all of Sullivan's favorite projects, including the Arts Council. This was a blow. Just when I was figuring out what was going on. I refreshed my resume and waited for the hammer to fall. I alerted my family. At the WAC, we mobilized the arts community and its members flooded legislators with calls and letters -- not sure if we had e-mail at that point. A few Republicans groused in public about what a nuisance artists and arts educators were. That seemed ominous. But the response was paying off.

I began to realize that the arts community in the state was a tight-knit web. Legislators had artist neighbors. Their kids were involved in the school orchestra or drama club. Relatives ran arts groups that brought artists and performers to their small towns. Cutting the arts budget was personal. And personal relationships are crucial to life in a place challenged by long distances and rough landscapes and weather. An important lesson.

This story has a happy ending. The budget was restored in a roundabout way but restored it was. Legislators learned a lesson, a short-term one at that as budget cuts to the arts and arts education were always a threat. I kept the resume updated. I was adding lots of experience as an arts administrator. Still learning, as it turns out. That never changed.

In 1993, the NEA came calling. And I answered.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Part XI: The Way Mike Worked -- The long road to a career as arts administrator

Arts administrator.

Nice alliterative term. Features the noun arts, which we all know is a right-brain function, with administrator, which is decidedly left brain. I always felt that I had some of the left and some of the right. I wasn't artistic, but I did enjoy the arts, as in the kind of art you see at galleries and museums and that which you see on stage in the form of theatre and music. My music tastes were shaped by the '60s and '70s, preferring rock and roll to the classical, what used to be called "longhair music" before there were actual long-haired hippies rocking out to Led Zep. My father loved classical music and played the loud stuff: Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Ravel. 

Dad loved the bagpipes.The only concert he ever took me to was the Black Watch, the military band that used to scare hell out of Native Africans, Afghans, and any other peoples the Brits yearned to subdue. He played bagpipe records too, probably to escape a house filled with squabbling kids and a frazzled wife. I was usually reading. I can still read when it's noisy. All through my childhood, my father played his stereo at night.

While studying creative writing at CSU in the late '80s, I supposed that I would teach if my fiction didn't start bringing in the dough. I was a teaching assistant, teaching freshman comp and eventually, creative writing to the young and restless. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that an M.F.A. in 1990 could land you a teaching job at a community college and maybe as a college adjunct. But I set my aims higher. I applied to colleges and universities all over the U.S. I snagged a couple in-person interviews, too, at the Modern Language Association conference in late December in Chicago. They bore no fruit. Too cold. I didn't stay at the conference hotel right by the waterfront but one that I could afford a few blocks away. 

During the three-day event, I encountered many young people engaged in the job search and, when they had a few minutes, attending some of the pedagogy sessions. I went to a few of those. The one I remember best featured Chicago hard-boiled crime writer Sara Paretsky. I'd read a few of her books and she was fascinating and funny. She talked about the movie being made based on her novels, V.I. Warshawski starring Kathleen Turner. She cracked up the audience when she told how the male director tried to talk Turner into showing a bit more skin as she battled the bad guys. Paretsky wondered then if Hollywood might not be ready for a female private eye. The talk filled me with joy until I again ventured outside into the snow and wind. I'd been living in Colorado for 12 years and knew snow and cold and wind. But there was something evil in the wind that howled off of Lake Michigan. 

In 1991, I was 40 and possibly unemployable. I started thinking that I might have to go back to the corporate world. I was broke and had a family to support. What to do?

That's when I started thinking of life as a working artist. The prospect filled me with dread and by the spring I was up to my cerebral cortex in depression. I'd been depressed before but never like this. I couldn't sleep and couldn't concentrate in class. We took off for a spring break trip to Tucson. I sat in the back seat; Chris and Kevin sat up front.  At one rest stop in New Mexico, I bolted off into the scrub, headed for God-knows-where. Eventually I stopped and returned to the car. Chris and Kevin were concerned. I was just a bundle of angst.

It wasn't much of a spring break. My psyche broke, or was breaking. On our way home, we stopped for the night at a cheap motel in Albuquerque. I was created a few miles away in 1950 after my newlywed parents partied in Old Town and then went back to their cramped apartment and had sex. It was about this time of year, too, mid-March, when the crab apple trees were trying to bloom and snowstorms collided with the Sandias. That was happening right this moment, the mountains squeezing fat snowflakes out of a Pacific Low. In my angst-ridden state, I didn't feel like driving or doing much of anything Elsie but hunkering down to wait out the Apocalypse. We waited through two nights. And on the third day, I arose from my somnambulist state and drove us the 500 miles back to Fort Collins. In this state of anxiety, my heart raced and I imagined scary things that would never come to pass. If one snowflake fell, by God, I was going to park this thing and never get out. But it didn't and I didn't. My wife wondered if I had flipped my lid. My son was confused by Dad"s odd behavior. We got home, eventually.

At this point, my experience with therapy consisted of three talk sessions with a therapist in training at UF Health Services. I was 26 and had just broken up with a long-time girlfriend or she had broken up with me. I was depressed and confused. After walking by the Health Services building a half-dozen times, I went in and asked for an appointment. I met with a guy who may have been younger than me, and we chatted. I quit after three sessions because I started to feel better. Not really -- spring was in full bloom and I found many outdoor things to do including spring break at the beach. Nothing like a little suds and sand and surf to ease a person's psyche or at least preoccupy it.

Back to 1991... A week after the trip to Phoenix, I was in the office of the campus psychiatrist.  A real shrink, not one-in-training. He sized me up pretty quickly and put me on a small dose of Prozac, a mind-altering drug. He warned me that it would take a month or more for me to feel its effects. I asked him about any unwanted side effects. Reduced libido, dry mouth, weight gain. I figured I could live with all of those, for a short time at least.

On a nice spring day, a guy I knew from my Denver church shot down his estranged wife in front of her workplace and then killed himself. The Denver Post article about it said that the killer had been under the care of a psychiatrist and was taking Prozac. Experts quoted in the article debated the pluses and minuses of the drug known generically as Fluoxetine. I read all of it but didn't have to as I knew that Prozac was involved. During our next session, I asked the psychiatrist about dangerous side effects such as murder. He took my question seriously but advised me to be cautious when reading about antidepressants because a lot of misinformation was circulating and the Internet was in its infancy. I stuck with the program and gradually, as spring turned to summer, I began to feel better.

I signed up for the arts education project at the Colorado Council for the Arts (now Colorado Creative Industries). They planned to send me to a small town in eastern Colorado for a semester to teach writing in the mornings and model my writing skills in the afternoon. I'd get paid a stipend and would stay at a teacher's house. I could see my family on weekends.

That summer, I worked on my thesis, taught composition at AIMS Community College in Greeley, and served  as the English Department rep to the CSU Fine Arts Committee.  I learned how to stage events, some of them quite big. I was charged with bringing writers to campus. Over the course of 18 months, I worked with Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Maya Angelou, Linda Hogan, David Lee, Larry Heinemann, and others. It was a thrill to meet some of the writers I had read. As I shepherded them around campus, I had some one-on-one time with them, asked them about their work, tried to get tips to help my own writing.

I brought Etheridge Knight to the Larimer County Jail where he coaxed a group of inmates to try out their poetic voices. Knight had been a jailbird himself, and a heroin addict after being wounded in the Korean War. He spoke from a deep well of experience. I spoke to Heinemann about the voice he used in Paco's Story, winner of the National Book Award. When I picked the novel off of the library shelves, I was hooked by the voice, a dead grunt who addresses a man named just "James" ("This ain't no war story, James") and narrates Paco's tale in a "sad and bitter voice." I took David Lee on a tour of his old dorm which now served as offices for me and my fellow teaching assistants.  It was a thrill listening to the diminutive Brooks reciting the "We Real Cool" poem that's included in almost every 20th century poetry anthology:

All of this took time away from my writing and classes. But it was this experience that led me to my 25-year career as an arts administrator.

You just never know where life will lead you.